Quentin Tarantino’s latest is a heartfelt if at times ultra-violent love-letter to the coolest period in Hollywood history, and a film buff’s fever dream of in-jokes and ‘meta’ gags.
Officially the ninth movie from the writer/director/producer, this offers priceless performances from returning collaborators Leonardo DiCaprio (of 2012’s Django Unchained) and Brad Pitt (of 2009’s Inglourious Basterds), who obviously both had great fun making it, and a fabulous turn from Margot Robbie as the late Sharon Tate, a real person set against all this fiction.
Robbie is somewhat secondary to the guys, but she’s still unforgettable here, as she wafts about town with her husband Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), parties at the Playboy Club with Michelle Phillips (Rebecca Rittenhouse) and Mama Cass (Rachel Redleaf), and watches herself in The Wrecking Crew where, with the blessing of Debra Tate, we see the real Sharon onscreen with Dean Martin. And we await her terrible end.
Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) is a former TV star (from Bounty Law, based on Wanted Dead Or Alive) who never quite made it in movies, and in 1969 he’s having a crisis and continually turning to pal Cliff Booth (Pitt), his stunt double, chauffeur, home handyman and therapist. They’re both very funny, although Pitt gets the best jokes while DiCaprio gets the big, unusually improvised tantrums, and in an early scene no less than Al Pacino shows up in a small role as Marvin Schwarz, a producer and agent who suggests that Rick travel to Italy and make ‘spaghetti westerns’ (just like Clint Eastwood). It’s an unusually quiet and underplayed contribution from Pacino, who might well be into his late 70s but can still ham it up like a pro, yet obviously Tarantino told him to calm the Hell down.
Rick is cast in a new series called Lancer, and he mixes with the eight year old Trudi Fraser (Julia Butters) and other players including James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant), Wayne Maunder (Luke Perry in his final role) and a host of Quentin’s besties in bits. There’s also a long, brilliantly sustained sequence where Rick struggles to deliver his dialogue in a drawn-out scene with James, and keeps breaking character with unscripted cursing, to the annoyance of director Sam Wanamaker (Nicholas Hammond), who did, in fact, direct Lancer’s pilot episode.
While all this is happening, Charles Manson’s ‘Family’ is a constant presence as they wander the streets and prepare to bring the 60s to a shocking end, although Manson himself (as played by Adelaide-born Damon Herriman) appears only for a few minutes. Cliff eventually travels to ‘Spahn’s Movie Ranch’ and meets many of Manson’s acolytes played by the likes of Dakota Fanning, Lena Dunham (Girls), Harley Quinn Smith (Kevin’s daughter) and Maya Hawke (daughter of regular Tarantino collaborator Uma Thurman and fresh from a breakout appearance in Netflix’s Stranger Things). Bruce Dern, an actual star of ‘60s movies in his third film for Tarantino, also briefly appears as the 80-or-so George Spahn himself, and was cast late in the production to fill in for the late lamented Burt Reynolds.
There is much here to love, from cameos by Kurt Russell, Damian Lewis as Steve McQueen and Mike Moh as Bruce Lee to the abundant pop cultural references that would take several viewings to unpack. Tarantino also puts his licensing budget to work with selections from Roy Head & The Traits, Simon & Garfunkel, Joe Cocker, Bob Seger, Aretha Franklin, Deep Purple, Neil Diamond and several classic Ennio Morricone riffs.
Some might be uncomfortable with the bloody violence here, which is graphic and outrageous even for this filmmaker. *But, while the world might have changed since he first made his mark, and certainly since the period revisited here, Tarantino shows just about the amount of restraint – and indulgence – we have come to expect from the director. Far out.
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (MA) is in cinemas now